Curriculum-Based Reform :: West Virginia
Collaborate! Experiment! Discover!
Addressing three key areas of need identified by the state, a West Virginia districthas rolled out a program dedicated to project-based, student-directed learning.
GREENBRIAR COUNTY PUBLICSCHOOLS in southeastern West Virginiabelieves its students can be competitive in the21st century. But to be competitive, the district’seducators realized they needed tochange the way they do business, and theyhave done so by incorporating problembased,student-driven learning at all gradelevels and implementing technology initiativesthat enliven the academic environmentby focusing on the local community and therich history and geography of the area.
This sweeping change has grown as a result of leadership from the state and funding from Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) and other grants. But the impetus for transforming the curriculum came in 2005, when the Governor’s Advisory Council for Educational Technology identified three areas of need for West Virginia schools: 1) more hardware resources, 2) more professional development, and 3) better support/maintenance for school computers.
Less than a year later, a team from Greenbrier County heard Gov. Joe Manchin and Steve Paine, the state’s superintendent of schools, talk about the importance of teaching students 21st-century skills. The message from the two men was clear: It is essential that the state develop students who are competent in the ability to think critically, apply knowledge at high levels, exhibit personal and workplace productivity skills, and use technology tools to assemble, communicate, and analyze information. Accordingly, there is a need to move away from learning as a succession of forgettable details, away from bloated textbooks that impel students to wade through a stream of chapters attempting to address a range of state standards in advance of mastering the questions waiting at the end of each chapter.
"They’re not just reading about computer repair; they’re actuallyputting it into practice. It’s about self-sufficiency and extendingone’s horizons.” —Chad Burns, Greenbrier County Public Schools
John Curry, superintendent of Greenbrier County, has followed the directive set forth by Manchin and Paine and has fully supported moving his district in the direction of 21st-century skills. The district’s efforts are visible at every level, beginning in its elementary schools with such projects as robotics building and inquiry-based mathematics, with the county embracing the idea that students learn better when they learn by discovery, seeking the meaning behind facts. Students work in groups, sharing ideas and strategies to solve realworld problems, and then explain their thinking both orally and in writing.
In the district’s middle schools, beginning in the fall, GPS and GIS (geographic information system) tools will be used to help students gain an understanding of their local heritage and the area’s geological concerns. (GIS technology stores, manipulates, and graphically displays geographic data in map form.)
At the high school level, science classrooms provide fertile ground for experimentation. Digital microscopes allow images to be put into computers and analyzed with software such as Scion Image. This past school year, Greenbrier County students began working with graphing calculators connected to probes to collect data for computer analysis. At the same time, the use of Vernier’s TI-Navigator learning systems also increased, and electrophoresis cells for collecting DNA were put to use.
The drive toward 21st-century learning picked up momentum in summer 2006, when the county put together two institutes, funded by EETT grants from the state, that sought to integrate scientific discovery into the practical application of mathematics, English, and social studies. Teachers from the two county high schools attended a science institute, where they learned to use Nova5000s (a learning device from Fourier Systems that combines the features of a laptop, a handheld, and a tablet computer), probes, a GPS, and a GIS. The teachers have since taken their training back to their classrooms and employed it in the study of local issues.
A second institute brought together high school students to document the science institute by creating a video that would explain 21st-century learning to teachers when they returned in the fall. In one week, the students put together a video that delighted the faculties at their respective high schools.
The excitement engendered by these two institutes and the subsequent studies teachers carried out during the 2006-2007 school year awakened educators in Greenbrier County to some crucial realities about today’s students: They care more when they conduct real-world studies involving their own communities, and they can utilize technology in ways we never dreamed they could just a few years ago.
Steven Hunter, a senior at Greenbrier West High School, took the computer-assisted art class which made use of the videography skills that teachers and students learned over the summer. “Twenty-first-century learning is about the capture, management, and transfer of media,” he says. “Having the chance to experience what actual film editors do was a oncein- a-lifetime chance. We made a ton of mistakes, but that’s how we learned. Trial-and-error was our main method. We had the ability to think of an idea, film what we needed, and then turn it into something great. Our resources were limited, but our imaginations were boundless.”
“Our children must be able to access information through technology,to think critically, to solve problems, and to communicate asmembers of a collaborative team.” —John Curry, Greenbrier County Public Schools
Working within the framework of 21st-century learning, Greenbrier County addressed all three areas of need cited by the advisory committee. The district has put more than 700 new computers in place over the past two years; has offered nearly 100 staff-development opportunities that directly target technology tools available to county educators; and has high school students who have set up shop to repair and maintain computers in their schools, maintaining a database of cost savings to the county.
“The Governor’s Advisory Council really got to the heart of what we need,” says Joseph Robertson, Greenbrier County secondary coach for math and science. “I know the state is working to address these areas, but we didn’t think there was any reason the county shouldn’t address them as well.”
State leadership and initiatives have been key to making changes possible. The district’s high school students take online classes through a Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation grant. The grant funds the first two years of a computer training program that seeks to prepare students to take the Computing Technology Industry Association’s A+ certification test, enabling schools to establish strong technology-repair programs with students at the helm. Greenbrier hires a certain number of these students to work during the summer to reimage, repair, and set up computers in all 14 county schools, under the direction of adults trained by county personnel. Students gain practical experience in a safe environment, and they positively impact their school system.
“This program gives our students a sense of ownership and accomplishment,” says Chad Burns, technology systems specialist for the county. “They’re not just reading about computer repair; they’re actually putting it into practice. It’s about self-sufficiency and extending one’s horizons.”
Junior Corey Howard’s thoughts are representative of the positive reviews the program has received from students: “To have this opportunity means you have to be responsible and have respect for your surroundings, including teachers, students, computers, and the tools provided to us. This program gives students more choices for majoring in some technological field.”
The county recently received another EETT grant from the West Virginia Department of Education that combines technology integration in four core areas at the middle school level—math, science, English, and social studies—with project- based learning. The grant project aims to build students’ pride in themselves and their heritage as they acquire 21st-century skills.
Starting in the fall, the funding will go to a wealth of hands-on applications. Students at the county’s two middle schools will use GIS software to digitally map their own experiences with the land relative to Greenbrier County’s Appalachian landscape, its waters, its structure, and its history. Google Earth, a digital mapping system, will help students expand their understanding of their physical place in the world in relation to the place of others. Science and math teachers will work with GPS units, Google Earth, and Microsoft Excel to study karst cave systems on the eastern end of the county, as well as the impact of runoff created by coal waste on the county’s western end, and to evaluate water-quality samples, then present their findings mathematically.
Social studies teachers will use GPS and GIS units to map local landmarks and study their historical and current social significance, and will present their findings at a Social Studies Multimedia Fair in August. The fair’s goal is to help middle school students better understand their heritage and make them better able to answer the following questions in the context of their role as Greenbrier County residents, West Virginians, Americans, and human beings: Where have I been? Where am I? Where do I want to be? How do I get there?
Meanwhile, English teachers will work with students on depicting the learning taking place in their schools through the use of a variety of publishing technologies: Adobe Dreamweaver to make pages for their school websites; PowerPoint to create presentations for community members; and Microsoft Publisher to produce newsletters for parents.
“Our children must be able to access information through technology, to think critically, to solve problems, and to communicate as members of a collaborative team,” says Superintendent Curry.
From robotics in the elementary schools to the use of GPS and GIS tools in the middle schools, to videography at the high school level, Greenbrier County Public Schools is an emblem of 21st-century learning. The leadership in the state has set out a vision and created an environment that encourages West Virginia schools to break away from the ordinary and the traditional. Greenbrier County educators know they are on the right track, and the enthusiasm of its teachers and students is making a real difference.
“We’re not where we want to be, but we definitely know where we’re going,” says Donna Ream, the district’s director of elementary education. “Twenty-first-century learning is not just about technology. Our students are learning to collaborate, innovate, think critically to solve problems, and present information to bring about greater understanding and change in their immediate surroundings and the world beyond Greenbrier County and West Virginia. They’ll be able to take the skills they’re learning and utilize them for the rest of their lives.”
-Brenda Williams is the executive director of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Instructional Technology.
-Vicky G. Cline is the director of technology, testing, and textbooks for Greenbrier County Public Schools.
This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.